Wednesday, September 28, 2011

L'Shana Tova: Rosh Hashanah


Happy New Year! L'Shana Tova! The Jewish New Year takes place on the 1st and 2nd days of the Hebrew month of Tishri and we've finally arrived at that time of year. This happy time usually corresponds with sometime between mid-September and mid-October on the regular Gregorian calendar, so we're right on track (the traditional western calendar functions according to the sun whereas the Hebrew calendar goes by both the sun and moon -- years coincide with the sun and months coincide with the moon). Luckily, I happen to be home in California visiting family and friends for this year's Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Thus, it is also unfortunate that I will not get to experience the new year celebrations in Israel this year. Alas, all over the world, traditions and customs are the same.

Rosh Hashanah directly translates as "head of the year" and although this new year's celebrations couldn't be more different then westernized traditions of celebrating the new year, there is one thing that is the same: we use this time of year to make resolutions, to reflect on the past year, to  clear the slate and to prepare to make amends. Rosh Hashanah is known to be the time of judgment, whereas the follow-up holiday of Yom Kippur is the day when the judgment is actually sealed. Our decisions, resolutions and fates are all written on Rosh Hashanah. Of course, all of this is done in the company of fellow congregants at your local synagogue where you spend the day in traditional services and in prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah, you will surely hear the shofar being blown, which is made from a ram's horn, as seen in the images below. The blowing of the shofar is one of the most typical and exciting portions of a Rosh Hashanah service and the entire process of blowing the shofar lasts for a hefty number of minutes during which a variety of different blows to the horn are produced. The purpose of the shofar being blown is threefold: 1) to remind us of the story of Isaac, whose life was spared in return for his faith to G-d (a ram was sacrificed in Isaac's place), 2) to summon a coronation of sorts since Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birth of the human race, and 3) to awaken our souls so that we may pray and repent during the new year's celebrations.


Also typical during New Year's celebrations is the eating of apples and honey, known for being a sweet treat and thus a sweet way to welcome in and hope for a sweet new year. You may also see and eat pomegranates, which symbolize being fruitful, or round challah bread which symbolizes the cyclical nature of the year.


Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah is a 2-day process with services on the first night and also lengthier services on the next full day. Family and friends will usually feast together during Rosh Hashanah and the mood is generally festive. As you can imagine, there is a lot of reunion and camaraderie with friends, family and congregants who only make it to synagogue during the high holidays.

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the holiday of Yom Kippur, a somber time of atonement and seriousness and also a day during which we fast. The two holidays are correlated in different ways through the symbolic "Book of Life" which is such a central theme to Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people who choose life over death, righteousness over sin, repentance over harboring anger, and charity over selfishness are making efforts to have their names written and inscribed by G-d in the "Book of Life". Though the decisions are made on Rosh Hashanah as to whose lives will be saved and whose futures will flourish, the fate is then sealed on Yom Kippur. In this way, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur interlock with each other as serious times of reflection and duty.


I wish to everyone out there a happy and healthy new year. As they say on Rosh Hashanah, may the best of your last year be just the worst of the coming year. L'Shana Tova!

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